Tuesday, April 03, 2007

In the Realm of Spirits: Traditional Dayak Tattoo in Borneo

Article by Lars Krutak

Borneo - for many outsiders the name has been synonymous with a forbidding and isolated wilderness, a steamy rain-soaked place, dangerous and forlorn. While it was among the first lands in Asia to be visited by Europeans, it remained among the last to be mapped.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Six major, and numerous minor, navigable rivers traverse the interior and function as trade and communication routes for the indigenous peoples who live here, namely the Dayak. Dayak, meaning "interior" or "inland" person, is the term used to describe the variety of indigenous native tribes of Borneo, each of which has its own language and separate culture. Approximately three million Dayak - Ibans, Kayans, Kenyahs and others - live in Borneo. Most groups are settled cultivating rice in shifting or rain-fed fields supplementing their incomes with the sale of cash crops: ginger, pepper, cocoa, palm oil. However several hundred Penan, nomadic hunter-gatherers, continue to follow a traditional lifestyle in the jungle, one that is rapidly vanishing.

Aside from a few scattered reports of missionaries, traders, and a handful of explorers in the mid-19th century, almost nothing was known about the Dayak and their customs. To these outsiders only one thing was for certain: that the island was inhabited by "primitive" peoples who worshipped pagan gods and spirits and whose knowledge and skills made this land their home.

By 1900, however, anthropological interest in Borneo peaked and became the focus of several museum expeditions by the Dutch and British. With the many ethnological accounts that followed, some of the most interesting material that was generated focused upon the traditional tattooing practices of the Dayak. Tattooing was believed to be a sacred activity that was connected to many aspects of traditional Dayak culture, especially spirit worship and headhunting.

Heavily tattooed Iban man of the Skrang River. Take note of his woven headband made of commercial, non-vegetable dyed fabric. © 2002-2006 Lars Krutak

Human skulls & offering basket hanging from the rafters of a Skrang River longhouse. © 2002-2006 Lars Krutak

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